That Fish in the Leaky Tub:

Talking David Lynch’s Dune

With Marcus Sullivan & Adrian Murray

38 years after the first big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbet’s novel, fans of Dune are anticipating Denis Villeneuve’s take on the seminal sci-fi epic with an all-star cast featuring Timotheé Chalamet and Zendaya. Just prior to the release, Marcus Sullivan, a lifelong fan of Dune, introduces Adrian Murray to the world of Dune through David Lynch’s troubled 1984 adaptation. Together they discuss the film’s shocking effects, opaque narrative, and political implications.

M: I’m a Dune-head and have seen this version many, many times from like, eight years old and on. But this was your first time with any Dune property. What did you know about Dune coming into this?

A: I came into this only having seen the first trailer for the new Dune so I had some idea of the premise and characters. I knew it was a space opera about a desert planet, so I anticipated a more moody Star Wars. Somehow, I guess through cultural osmosis I knew that Spice is a fuel source that can also get you stoned. I feel like I had a pretty solid footing, but my biggest surprise was that Chani is barely in this! Based on the trailer, character posters, and the fact that she’s played by Zendaya, I expected her to be central. So it was interesting to see which characters were given star power in Lynch’s versus Villeneuve’s. 

M: Yeah, Chani is a wasted character in the Lynch version. They steamroll over her and Paul’s entire relationship, to the point where you only find out about it in retrospect in voiceover. So that’s an example of something that I trust, just based on them casting Zendaya and times having changed as they have, that she will have a much bigger role in the Villeneuve version. What, if anything, did you like about Lynch’s Dune?

A: I loved the look of the effects. I love that you open with the… engineer lord, that fish in the leaky tub. I loved the shot of the ships going up from Paul’s homeworld into that tube of a spaceship. I loved the really blocky CGI when they’re doing shield practice. Because each effect was so unique and so clearly not made by the same processes as the last, I was always stoked to have some new technique thrown at me.

M: I’m glad to hear it! Because some of the effects absolutely don’t work. Like, not even in an “otherworldly artificial” kind of way. The illusion is so unconvincing at points that it becomes impossible to take the movie seriously. I’m thinking mostly of the terrible blue screen riding of the sand worms at the end. It looks so silly.

A: Totally, they can pull you in or take you out. My favourite part of the movie is the Baron. I loved his performance, and his floating around effect was the only one that worked seamlessly and in a way where you couldn’t immediately tell how they did it. This madman is having so much fun floating around and being so vindictive! It’s a wonderful fusion of effect and performance. The actor brings such glee to the role.

M: He projects a true joi de vivre! My wife has tried to watch it three times with me, and is so repulsed by the Baron that she bails repeatedly at the boil surgery bit. To the point where she refuses to even let me discuss the movie with her. So I was concerned that you would have a similar reaction.

[The Baron] brings a… pornographic energy to his scenes. He has a preoccupation with bodies and fluids that feels fetishistic.

A: No, I couldn’t look away when he was on screen! He brings a… pornographic energy to his scenes. He has a preoccupation with bodies and fluids that feels fetishistic. I’m thinking of the heart plugs all the Harkonens have, the attention he pays to his boils, and the way he spits on Paul’s mom. If someone walked in on me watching that scene I’d rush to turn it off and make excuses.

M: It really lingers on the shot of the glob dripping down her face, too. The scene where he goes under the oil…

A: That was a beautiful shot. So vivid and grotesque. 

M: All the sequences on Giedi Prime, in the Harkonnen city, exemplify what I do love about the movie. Those flashes of nightmare imagery don’t depend on the story to work. You don’t need to understand the political machinations of the great houses of the Imperium to appreciate a floating obese man drenched in oil. [LAUGHS]

A: A success being the sexy Baron, a failure to me was how small this movie felt. Most of the movie takes place in small rooms. The Atreides palace is a cramped, dank castle and it feels very stagey, like a costume drama stage play. Then Patrick Stewart shows up, and the whole thing starts feeling like Star Trek. Actually, the first two thirds of this movie felt a lot to me like the beginning of a Next Generation episode before the Enterprise shows up and is like “Hey, guys, come on.”

M: I think that’s maybe why I’ve never considered it to be stagey myself, before now, because I’m such a big trekkie and Trek is notoriously stagey. Growing up I think I just assumed that was how science fiction was supposed to feel, with more of an emphasis on actors and costumes than spectacle and scale. From the trailer, it looks like the remake will have more of a cinematic feel with expansive landscapes, kinetic action sequences, and cool shots of spaceships. I’m excited for that.

A: Is there anything in the new trailers that worries you?

M: Well… You couldn’t confuse the ’84 Dune with any other movie of its type or era, it has such a clear authorial imprint. Whereas the new one feels a little bit like a conventional blockbuster themed with Dune IP. It looks very crisp, calculated, and reliant on meticulous CGI. This versus the Lynch version, which isn’t in the mold of anything. It doesn’t feel like a David Lynch movie entirely; it certainly doesn’t feel like a fun sci-fi adventure. It doesn’t even really feel like the book. It’s very much its own flawed but unique piece. That being said, the new one might be a good movie, which this isn’t.

A: Yeah, as much as I did enjoy watching this, I couldn’t call it a good movie.

M: No. Unfortunately even as a lifelong fan I have to admit that it does not work as a film. I wish it did, I always go into it hoping that it will. I got into Dune as a kid because my Mom had the movie tie-in version of the book, and it had this gorgeous poster art on the cover. Two blue moons setting against a pink sky above the sands of Arrakis. It was such a haunting, ethereal, intriguing image. And then on the back there were these little stills from the movie, and they looked so weird and exciting too. I could only dream of the dark wonders in that story.

But the older I get and the more times I watch the actual movie, the less it holds up to that childhood fantasy. For a long time I convinced myself that it was a misunderstood masterpiece. But watching it this time… I mean the whole thing falls apart irrevocably about halfway through, when Paul and Jessica are exiled into the desert. I actually haven’t read past the first half of the first book, and I think it’s because the back half of the movie is such a slog.

A: Yeah. I was pretty on board with this movie up until that point.

M: Everything up until there is fascinating and bizarre and has sort of an epic sweep. But once you hit the desert it’s like… when you are writing by hand and realize you haven’t left yourself enough space on the page to finish your paragraph, so you squeeze in the last few sentences with tiny letters. That’s what the whole last hour of the movie feels like.

A: That’s the perfect analogy. [LAUGHS]

So we’ve just had the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan after as many years of occupation. It was hard not to view this as a clear metaphor for that war. You have an arid location tied to energy production that is a setting for proxy wars between empires. You have foreign powers coming in and trying to teach the locals how to fight for you… 

The story speaks to how long these same cycles have been repeating. That a film from 1984 based on a book from 1965 could speak so directly to a political disaster from last month… is pretty telling.

M: It’s impossible to watch Dune so soon after the withdrawal to not make the connections.  It’s uncomfortable in that it almost feels derivative of recent events.

A: I wonder how much Villeneuve’s version is going to lean into this potential political resonance. I’m interested to see how Dune’s COVID-delayed release will affect the political reading of the film since it was intended to be released before the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but now we’re seeing it after. If it came out just before the withdrawal I can imagine there would be thinkpieces about how this movie influenced the decision, or at least public opinion on the decision. That war is now overshadowed in the news cycle by COVID concerns, so in a way it could be rendered politically inert due to the timing of the release.

M:  I think the story speaks to how long these same cycles have been repeating. That a film from 1984 based on a book from 1965 could speak so directly to a political disaster from last month… is pretty telling.

A: As a lifelong Dune-head, what’s your highest hope for Villeneuve’s film?

M: I’m praying that this first remake does well. The new ones really have the potential to take the pressure off of the Lynch version. Like, I enjoy the animated Lord of the Rings, for example—which is a much worse version than the Peter Jackson movies we all know and love—and if it were the only adaptation of those books it would be a big bummer. But because we have the live-action movies, it becomes this charming cult oddity instead. It’s clear that as a legitimate adaptation of the novel, Lynch’s Dune is a failure. But as a charming oddity, it’s a delightful success.

Marcus Sullivan is a screenwriter and editor based out of Ottawa.

Adrian Murray is a filmmaker from Toronto.